There’s something for everyone in Dublin – from its compelling and troubled history to the stately lines of its beautiful public architecture; a vibrant music and art scene, wonderful theatre and treasure stuffed museums. Factor in that Dublin is also the birthplace of a whole alphabet of literary stimulants from Samuel Beckett through to James Joyce, all the way to Bram Stoker, and - whatever your drug of choice - culture junkies can score on every street corner. It’s also a city made for walking. Buses are plentiful, but traffic is such that it’s often quicker to don trainers and hoof it, especially if you plan to meander around with a guidebook in your hand. I was staying in the swanky southern suburb of Ballsbridge – a peaceful area of wide, leafy streets where you get value added exercise in running to dodge cars at road junctions. Pedestrian crossings are sparse away from the city centre, though traffic isn’t.
When tired of tourist tramping, there’s always the Temple Bar area, an aptly named shrine to the last legal intoxicant, where you can visit one of Dublin’s 700 pubs for a pint of the national brew. Once the preserve of rowdy stag nights and carousing, drunken visitors, Temple Bar has cleaned up its act and quietened down to a dull roar. It’s still a buzzy part of town with open air film screenings and dance performance s held in Meeting House Square throughout the summer months, which you can enjoy free while eating dinner al fresco at Eden. Anyway, how can you go to Dublin for a weekend and not drink? Can you go to heaven and not be dead?
Sure, I hear you muttering into your beer, you can’t miss out on the Guinness and the craic. Well, though I wouldn’t dare advise going to Ireland without fully participating the central part of the whole intoxicating, Dublin experience, hold on to your barstool, actually – it’s possible to get through the whole weekend, solitary and sober.
I was on my own and on the wagon. So there was no propping up the bar at any of Dublin’s finest hostelries with the wish that someone would take pity on me and chat me up, alternating with the fervent prayer that it isn’t the man in the string vest with his teeth in his pocket. I simply ate my way round Dublin, happily in pursuit of the three R’s – restaurants, room service and retail therapy. Certainly, there’s no shortage of suitable outlets.
Despite suffering from the global slowdown in tourism over the last eighteen months, Dublin acts, looks and thinks like a Boomtown, especially at lunchtime. As one taxi driver put it: “There’s no getting away from the sheer numeracy of hotels and restaurants in the town.” On the Southside of the city, separated by the river Liffey from the less touristy Northside, all streets apparently lead to supper. Everywhere you look there are cafes, sandwich bars and restaurants. You name it, they’ve got it - the ethnic, the modest and the full-on high church of gastronomy. And all of them are full.
Nassau Street, opposite Trinity College, is a tea-towel theme park of “Oirish ‘R Us” souvenir shops crowned with one fine restaurant - Jacob’s Ladder - a long climb up from street level – hence the name. This is one of the few places serving Dublin Coddle, though here transformed into a shellfish chowder rather than the traditional dish more usually made with sausage, bacon and potatoes. Often overlooked by guidebooks in favour of the flashier, fancier establishments, Chef Adrian Roche’s under-rated cooking is a favourite amongst other restaurants’ off-duty staff who brave the altitude change to sample modern Irish food with a French twist. The winter special is roast squab pigeon with roast carrots, pate and herb mash, but the seven varieties of home made bread especially the treacle bread and curried bread –are worth the climb alone.
Outside, nip round the corner to South Frederick Street and find the tiny deli cum café - Dunne & Crescenzi - serving simple Italian food to a packed house from early to late, while nearby Sheridan’s stocks a wide range of Irish and Continental cheeses as well as charcuterie, all guaranteed to make your handbag smell like dead men’s socks.
Sandwiched between the two in Dawson Street you’ll find La Stampa, an individually decorated hotel where you can recline in a bar decorated like an Ottoman seraglio, replete with fringed cushions and velvet sofas, leading into a gorgeous belle epoch dining room. Visit at night for best effect when, with its gigantic mirrors reflecting red marbled pillars and flickering candelabra and menorahs, you may come over all Beauty and the Beast and start twirling around the room, thinking that the man with the teeth in his pocket may indeed be a prince. The menu is less interesting, however and food, competent but uninspired. My duck was not merely pink as advertised but still bleeding, and when, after a few bites, it was returned to the kitchen for a band aid, it came back, still bearing its stigmata, but cleanly rearranged on a pile of too tart, overpowering red cabbage, my previous bite marks nicely highlighted.
However, at the top of the road, as one passer by put it “if you veneer to the left” around the verdant St Stephen’s Green you can’t go wrong if you’re hungry. Traditional breakfast at Browne’s Brasserie lunch at The Commons underneath Newman House, or a steak dinner at the restaurant all taxi drivers drool over and recommend – Shanahan’s on the Green. Walk it off with a brisk hike across the Liffey to the Northside.
Here you will find the hotel I feel I was snatched from at birth, The Morrison on Ormond Quay, an ultra cool hotel where you can mingle with the beautiful people who seem to breathe cashmere and waft around in the scent of money. If you can tear yourself away, the multicultural food stalls the Epicurean Food Market in Liffey Street will put you back in touch will culinary reality – for less than a fiver. Grab a panini, a paneer, or a paper plate full of paella to keep you going up O’Connell Street, one of the widest streets in Europe, with a stop at the fabulously evocative General Post Office. The building was restored after being gutted during the 1916 Easter Rising enabling you to buy a stamp in a piece of history. Trudge up to Parnell Square and the home of The Dublin Writers Museum where you can overdose on literature, before visiting Ross Lewis’s excellent restaurant – Chapter One – in the basement. Try terrine of leeks with goat’s cheese and roast beetroot – or grilled black sole with a mussel and basil cream.
Alternatively, back on the Southside, if you can resist the lure of Temple Bar, there’s the outstanding gutsy, modern Irish cooking of Derry Clarke in L’Ecrivain, which has one Michelin star and boasts dishes like black pudding with honey ice cream – bizarre yet totally delicious. A stoud, traditional lunch dish – boiled bacon with cabbage – tastes nothing like your mammy would have made, unless she was a genius. The bacon is sweeter than a baby’s kiss and melts in the mouth. Oysters with Guinness sabayon is one of the restaurant’s constant crowd pleasers and another signature dish, deep fried prawns wrapped in kitafi pastry, provokes a public outcry when it disappears from the menu.
A short stumble away (opposite three men tucking into bread rolls beside a sign announcing a fast for a worthy cause) The Merrion Hotel’s Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud boasts two Michelin Stars for extravagant French food. Dinner here might be lobster ravioli, followed by ‘Challans’ duck’ for two people, where the breast is carved at the table with an orange sauce, then the legs deboned and served with salad. Finish off with the assiette of chocolat – 8 different, exquisite chocolate desserts, for those whose thighs are thin enough to take the strain. If you’re not up to dinner, the Merrion’s café au lait walls and white stuccoed Georgian interior beckons just as seductively for afternoon tea, complete with tinkly music, drifting ethereally through the marbled halls. Inside you can have the full three tiered Monty for 25 Euros, complete with a lassie harping on to Bach in the background and a man, clapping uncertainly when she pauses between movements. Heavenly, indeed. Though when she started playing Pachebel’s Canon, a tune I told my kids I wanted at my funeral, I thought it was time to go and get a coffee high instead.
For a country so devoted to the religion of the black stuff, Dublin has embraced the white frothy stuff as though it was a long lost cousin who’d just won the lottery. No matter what time of the day, you’ll find someone wearing a white foam with chocolate sprinkle moustaches but the real high spot of all this java jive is that the big, corporate chains have yet to arrive leaving room for places retaining their own individuality, like Butler’s Chocolate Café. Here you can have a cup of hot chocolate so smooth and silky you could just wear it like a pair of high calorie tights, served with a couple of chocolate truffle chasers. In the 18th century, Europeans believed that chocolate turned women into sex-hungry whores. What a shame that turned out not to be true. Between Patrick Guilbaud and Butler’s , the city would be on to a winner.
But the cherry on the cup cake of conspicuous consumption has to be dinner at Kevin Thornton, who with his two Michelin stars is newly installed in the ocean white dining room of the glittering marble ice Palace that is the Fitzwilliam Hotel. Here food is like old money - restrained, well bred, quietly unassuming and lacking unnecessary ostentation. Roast Quail with a white onion puree and a morel sauce and sautéed foie gras with scallops and a cep sauce are both quietly rich, while the ballotine of rabbit with a shamelessly sweet balrhona and hazelnut sauce or wild seabass with fennel and herb risotto and asparagus squid ink sauce will lull you into speechless bliss – and keep you from revealing ink-blackened teeth. Tables are so far away from each other that you can gasp unnoticed over the considerable prices. It’s full of people with more money than sentences and the room is so hushed you can hear the bubbles in your water fizz. Well until some of the high rolling locals come in who are not yet stunned into cooing, catatonia by the food. I was sitting next to straggly haired a man in shades who looked like an off duty porn star and talked noisily on his mobile phone to LA for half an hour until his guests arrived. I glanced up as they sauntered across the room to join him, flicking their long hair like supermodels and jangling their hoop earings, though two of them were men. Naturally, one of them was Bono from U2. Now if that’s not the cut out and keep Dublin experience, what is?
Who needs Guinness?
Top dog restaurants
18/19 Parnell Square
(353 1) 873 2266
underneath the Dublin Writer’s Museum – modern Irish cooking with emphasis on organic and locally sourced ingredients.
dinner - main courses up to 34 Euros
lunch 3 courses for 27.50 Euros
Address as Fitzwilliam Hotel
(353 1) 478 7008
Quiet restrained high class cooking that rarely misses a beat.
dinner - main courses cost up to 48 Euros
lunch 3 courses 39 Euros
109a Lower Baggot Street
(353 1) 661 1919
Food that’s gutsy, enthusiastic and knocks your taste buds off
dinner - main courses up to 39 Euros
lunch - 3 courses 35 Euros
85/86 St Stephen’s green
(353 1) 478 0530
dinner - main courses - up to 43 Euros
lunch - 3 courses 32 Euros
Snapping at the heels
17/19 Sycamore Street
(353 1) 677 4199
newly opened sister restaurant of Eamonn O’Reilly’s One Pico restaurant at 5-6 molehouse Place, Schoolhouse Lane Dublin 2 (tel (353 1) 676 0300 – itself a Dublin institution. Pacific offers dishes like soft shell crab risotto and fillet of beef with Roquefort ravioli – still too new to really pull it off – though the upstairs customer only bar is a great, groovy space.
dinner - main courses up to 27.50 Euros
Browne’s Brasserie (Hotel and Restaurant)
22 St Stephen’s Green
(353 1) 638 3939
full breakfast 16.50 Euros
set lunch 35 Euros
dinner - main course up to 29.50 Euros
146 Upper Leeson Street
(353 1) 664 2135
Sister restaurant of TriBeCa, young, inexpensive and commendable food.
Meeting House Square
(353 1) 670 5373/2
4 Nassau Street
(353 1) 670 3865
La Stampa (Hotel and Restaurant)
35 Dawson Street
(353 1) 1 285 4851
dinner - main courses up to 32.50 Euros
Shanahan’s on the Green
119 St Stephen’s Green
(353 1) 677 3478
65 Ranelagh Village
(353 1) 497 4174
Trendy, inexpensive restaurant drawing the crowds for weekend brunch. Sister restaurant of Dish.
11-13 Suffolk Street
(353 1) 677 1544
Fabulous shop with a basement full of foodie goodies
59 Glasthule Road
(353 1) 280 9120
worth a trip out of town to visit this fish shop with small restaurant attached.
La Maison des Gourmets
15 Castle Market
(353 1) 672 7258
Patisserie and bakery as well as café upstairs serving more substantial food.
11 South Anne Street
(353 1) 679 3143
Hotels for the well heeled traveller
St Stephen’s Green,
(353 1)478 7000
glossy people, glossy floors, glossy prices. High Tea 25 Euros
(353 1) 660 5000
(this is where I stayed so suppose should include it) Comfortable hotel with business facilities as well as Dublin’s only outdoor swimming pool!
The Merrion Hotel
Upper Merrion Street
(353 1) 603 0600
heaven with fluffy towels instead of fluffy clouds and 2 star Michelin food in Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud at 21 Upper Merrion Street tel (353 1)676 4192
(353 1) 887 2400
Where the uberchic go to pose and repose – don’t miss the galleried restaurant Halo tel (353 1) 887 2421
Hotels for the less well shod
(353 1) 668 7666
The Mercer Hotel
Mercer Street Lower
(352 1) 478 2179
Cafes and Delis
Butler’s Chocolate Café
4 city centre locations
Epicurean Food Hall
Entrances on Liffey Street and Middle Abbey Street
Dunne & Crescenzi
14 South Frederick Street
(353 1) 6773 815